How to make your music sound professional – is the question everyone wants the answer to. “Professional” as a word has a certain reputation to it, representing great quality and value. To open the subject up, I’ll show you a few ways you can get closer to the professional sound in your musical endeavors. Let’s jump right in!
While staying organized won’t directly affect your sound, it is the right path to walk along in your road to the professional sound.
When working inside a DAW, things can get a little bit messy, especially during a creative phase. That’s totally fine, as long as you fix everything before the beginning of the next session.
I’m talking about naming your tracks, color-coding them, grouping similar instruments next to each other in the mixer view, routing instruments into groups and buses, and so on.
Staying organized is important because the less time you spend hassling with your DAW, the more time you will have to spend to actually work towards making your tracks sound good. It’ll also speed up your workflow remarkably.
The pros work with speed, efficiency and clarity – and so should you.
Clean things up
You might record instruments or vocals with microphones. That’s great. Just make sure you clean the waveforms of clicks, pops and other artifacts, so you’ll only be left with the actual sound you want to include in your music.
A big one is the hiss or background noise that recording introduces. It’s fine while the instrument is playing – you can’t really get rid of it, but when the instrument is not audible, remove the parts of the audio that include the noise.
In short, don’t have any extra, unnecessary artifacts in your music, unless planned on.
The basic tools you have for cleaning your audio are EQ and gate. With these two, you will go a long way. The magic of EQ are the high and low-pass filters.
Have a low-end rumble in your guitar track? No problem, just put a high pass filter on it. What about an annoying high frequency noise? Insert a low pass filter on it and adjust it to the right frequency. Problem solved.
Gates are useful when dealing with low-volume artifacts such as background noise, hiss or pops and crackles. In a vocal track, these artifacts exist 95% of the time. Just configure the gate so it starts working when the vocalist starts to sing. Other than that, the gate should create dead silence on that track. Handy!
Yes, fades are used as a clean-up tool to remove clicks in the beginning and end of audio, but to me they are more than that.
With fades, you can control your arrangement in a very dynamic way. It might be a bit dull and boring to make an instrument appear from silence, going directly to full volume.
With fades, you can introduce elements in your songs, such as a long, evolving pad or a guitar loop, to create and keep up interest.
Fades could be short or long, it’s up to you. The character of a fade is dictated by its shape. Try all the different shapes and see how they sound like when faded in or out.
Fades are also a highly creative tool. Use them to create interesting effects to sustained sounds and even tremolo-like effects.
A classic example of using a fade is to fade out a whole song into silence, usually from the last chorus. You’ve all heard this effect. Yep, that’s just a simple fade, adjusted with great taste.
Don’t underestimate the simplicity of fades!
Timing is everything
You’ve heard this saying before, and it applies especially well to music. Timing is indeed everything if you want your music to sound great.
Naturally, great timing comes from great instrument players, such as guitarists or drummers. It can be done in the electronic world too with the right understanding of time and concepts such as the “pocket”.
The pocket is something that happens when the timing of a certain instrument’s performance just feels right. With the rhythm guitar such as in Daft Punk’s hit song “Get Lucky”, it’s definitely in the pocket – which has a positively extending effect to the groove as a whole.
When working with MIDI and programming instruments, such as drums, make sure to put all the drum hits in their right “pockets”. You can use the grid of the DAW for your advantage, as well as parameters such as swing or velocity.
When I talk about the grid, use it as a framework. Some hits are beneficial to keep locked directly on the grid, such as a kick drum hit. But don’t keep everything straight on the grid. Humans are not robots. It’s nice to be able to hear the humane factor in computer music too.
Stay sharp with your timing!
Keep it simple
When thinking about bands in the traditional sense, the instruments present usually are drums, guitar, bass, keyboard and vocals. That’s five different instruments. In electronic music, it’s easy to go overboard with instrumentation as the possibilities are vast.
Here’s something to try: create a drum kit, one or two bass sounds, a keyboard and a few pad sounds. When you limit yourself to fewer instruments, it forces you to make the most out of them. With tricks such as fades, as described earlier, you can introduce them in and out during your arrangement.
The key here is to have fewer instruments, but have them play different kinds of melodies and chords throughout the song, so it doesn’t approach the gates of boredom.
A crucial point here is the modulation of sounds throughout your song. At one point, you might want to introduce a slight chorus effect to your keyboard, and at another you might want to bring in some reverb for it. When you modulate your sounds in different ways, they will always sound interesting.
The advantage of a fairly simple instrumentation is, the song will sound bigger. Why? Because instruments do not get in the way of each other. It’s that simple. Of course, to achieve this you will also need to arrange your songs in a clever way, so they actually don’t.
Sound like a pro yet?
As you go along your path of a music maker, make sure you take these five areas into account. All knowledge will accumulate, and you’ll make your music sound professional as time passes. Stay persistent and don’t give up, it will be worth the pain.
What do you think about these five principles? Have you used them in your music already? Discuss.
As usual, leave your questions and comments below, and I’ll be more than happy to get back to you.
Be a pro, act like a pro.